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Cultural Heritage Ethics

Constantine Sandis


Constantine Sandis

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1Theory without practice is empty, practice without theory is blind, to adapt a phrase from Immanuel Kant. Cultural heritage ethics has certainly suffered from such a dichotomy. This book seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice through conversations which promote the awareness and debate of difficult questions, collectively pointing to a just medium between academic and vocational approaches.

2The intra-disciplinary essays that follow have been written by academics, consultants, journalists, lawyers, and museum practitioners. I have divided them into four sections: (i) meaning and memory; (ii) history and archaeology; (iii) ownership and restitution; and (iv) management and protection. The book thus guides the reader from the abstract to the concrete, and back again. What follows is a brief overview of the essays in each section.

Part I: Meaning and Memory

3In ‘Culture, Heritage, and Ethics’, I introduce a number of themes taken up in more detail by the other contributors. Given the range of questions and complexities surrounding heritage, I am sceptical about the possibility of a unified account of it. Heritage, cultural or otherwise, is not always good. It may be preserved in fundamentally different, indeed contradictory, ways. Pari passu, the range of rights relating to it is not a straightforward one. My essay has been written in the faith that ‘a repertoire might be more useful than a conviction’, sketching out a very partial and rudimentary conceptual cartography of the area of cultural heritage ethics. In so doing, I hope to have marked some of the numerous pitfalls which face the bolder theorist.

4James Fox’s ‘Poppy Politics: Remembrance of Things Present’ takes as its starting point the scandal ignited in November 2011, when FIFA (the international football governing body) refused to allow the English football team to wear remembrance poppies on their shirts during a match against Spain. FIFA had long enforced a universal ban on the wearing of political symbols during its games, but under intense pressure from both the government and the Royal Family it finally relented. British lobbyists had argued that the poppy was a ‘universal symbol of remembrance’, and had no political, religious or commercial connotations. Fox’s essay explores the origins and development of Britain’s rituals of remembrance, arguing that the poppy is far less neutral than its supporters claim: Fox demonstrates that in fact the poppy has deeply political associations which legitimise the conflict that it ostensibly seems to condemn. His insights on the politics of remembrance suggest that heritage in this case refers to the past rather than to the present.

5The first section concludes with Benjamin Ramm’s essay ‘The Meaning of the Public in an Age of Privatisation’. Ramm takes on the New Right’s characterisation of the private realm as the abode of meaning, investigating how this attack on the value of shared culture has impoverished citizens by robbing them of a vocabulary with which to make sense of the world. The neoliberal concept of ‘private persons, public consumers’, he concludes, has little time for public memory – a context in which heritage takes on radical new meaning.

Part II. History and Archaeology

6In ‘History as Heritage: Producing the Present in Post-War Sri Lanka’, Nira Wickramasinghe explores the consolidation by a patriotic post-conflict state of a notion of history reinvented as national heritage. The distinction between history as an analysis of the past and heritage had rarely been made explicit in the public discourse. After the war ended the distinction disappeared almost entirely from the national discourse, with the exception of a few voices in history departments. In Wickramasinghe’s view, heritage as we understand it, is created, shaped and managed by, and in response to, the demands of the present. It is, to follow David Lowenthal, not history at all, but a special pleading. Wickramasinghe draws from an array of sources and practices relating to post-war Sri Lanka to assess the feasibility of devising alternative strategies in the production of historical knowledge. Williams St Clair’s ‘Looking at the Acropolis of Athens from Modern Times to Antiquity’ does just what it says on the tin. St Clair guides the reader through the history of ways of looking at the Acropolis – how and when different perspectives emerged and how they were mediated. St Clair takes this analysis even further, using the Acropolis as a case study to prove that the meaning of cultural sites and artefacts is at least partly determined by the viewer. St Clair argues that the wish to offer viewers a means of understanding the relationship between the then present, the then past, and the then future, was among the explicitly stated aims of those who built the classical Acropolis, as well as by others in later times. By relocating the site where meanings are made to the minds of viewers and by admitting them as active participants in a complex dynamic system, we become able to take into account factors that are not given sufficient attention in current conventions.

7In her essay ‘South Asian Heritage and Archaeological Practices’, Sudeshna Guha demonstrates how archaeological practices have been consistently deployed within South Asia for over two hundred years in order to establish truths about the origins and legacy of that civilisation. Guha focuses on histories of civilisational traditions that have been unearthed in colonial and post-colonial India through seemingly disparate archaeological practices, but which have historiographic crossings and mutations. With reference to the nineteenth-century creation of a Buddhist Banaras, as well as to recent interpretations regarding the cultural legacies of the Indus Civilisation, Guha aims to sow seeds of caution towards all forms of valorisation of civilisational ethos within disciplinary archaeology. In so doing, she situates the importance of critiquing such constructs in an academic milieu that shows an increasing concern towards archaeological productions of tangible ‘heritage-industries’.

8Geoffrey Scarre’s ‘The Ethics of Digging’ asks how archaeologists should select their research material, and whether they make their choices on the basis of academic considerations alone. Whose interests should archaeological research be serving: those of the profession, of local ethnic or indigenous groups, of the general public, or the good of mankind? And how should these be prioritised? What permissions (and whose) do archaeologists need to obtain if their digging is to be ethical? Is excavation which permanently damages or changes a site ethically acceptable? Should archaeologists, in a Lockean vein, take care to leave ‘as much and as good’ material for later researchers, and avoid depleting archaeological resources? What duties do archaeologists have following excavation in regard to recording, publication, dissemination and display? Is archaeological digging ethically consistent with the principle of stewardship to which most archaeologists pay lip-service? Would stewardship, strictly construed, imply a ‘hands-off’ approach to the archaeological resource, and permit excavation only in the case of endangered sites? What special ethical responsibilities do archaeological researchers have in regard to human remains and grave-sites? These are the key questions which Scarre posits and begins to answer.

Part III: Ownership and Restitution

9John Boardman’s ‘“National” Heritage and Scholarship’ considers the fifty-year old debate over the handling and publication of ancient artefacts acquired through channels other than official excavation. Boardman reminds us that while the UNESCO declaration has effectively increased the value of objects known before 1970, it has done nothing to halt the acquisition and marketing of ‘recovered’ objects. It is still not uncommon to hear the term ‘national heritage’ being used and this can easily lead to a more casual approach to some aspects of the problem. Better by far, claims Boardman, to speak of ‘global heritage’, the ‘heritage of man’ or even just ‘heritage’. There are very few relevant countries whose modern population has any serious genetic or cultural links with their distant past. Jealousy seems a very strong motive in many cases, often abetted by extreme views about what ‘copyright’ entails.

10Moving from jealousy to ‘Fear of Cultural Objects’, Tom Flynn reads some of the recent and current disputes over global cultural heritage through the metaphor of fear. The essay opens with an analysis of the little-known early German expressionist feature film Fear, the narrative of which centres upon the illicit removal of a cultural object from a distant sacred site and its subsequent re-location to a European private collection. The subsequent ‘haunting’ of the collector, triggered by the illicit act of removal, provokes our ethical reflections on heritage by suggesting that many of today’s cultural heritage disputes are fuelled by different types of fear. Western ‘universal’ museums fear losing their collections, which symbolise their identity and power, to repatriation. This can be contrasted with the fear felt by many in the formerly subaltern nations of the developing world who interpret these mainly European and North American encyclopaedic institutions as tyrannical symbols of imperial greed. Flynn explores the roots of this mutual fear, asking how it can be assuaged in an increasingly globalised world of contested cultural objects.

11Further worries about ‘Restitution’ are investigated by Mark Jones who considers the arguments for the return of cultural property and tests them against some well-known contested objections. While recognising the difficulty of reaching an agreement, Jones combines case studies with sharp critical insights to suggest ways in which contested objects instead of being divisive might on the contrary become catalysts for international partnerships. Inaction in this case may be a better way of serving the public interest.

Part IV: Management and Protection

12The fourth and final section of the volume opens with Michael F. Brown’s exploration of ‘The Possibilities and Perils of Heritage Management’. Although the right of communities to practice their culture and defend it from unwanted appropriation is widely regarded as a human right, the precise means by which this right can be defended and administered remains uncertain. Brown argues that the very notion of ‘managing’ a society’s multiple forms of collective expression entails a degree of objectification that poses a potential threat to culture’s inherent (and necessary) fluidity. His essay considers the challenge of finding an appropriate balance between ethical considerations and the law of unintended consequences in the vexed arena of heritage protection. Using brief case studies, Brown highlights the tendency of heritage protection strategies to gravitate to top-down, ‘patrimonial’ models of control that treat culture as a commodity. He concludes by making the ethical case for more informal and flexible approaches to heritage protection.

13Geoffrey Belcher begins his essay ‘Values in World Heritage Sites’ by considering the variety of World Heritage sites, from the symbolic value of Auschwitz and Hiroshima to the beauty of the Taj Mahal and the Great Barrier Reef. All these sites are selected by the Conservation Committee at UNESCO. Even though the management of the sites is formally undertaken by the national state party (DCMS in the case of the United Kingdom), in practice it falls to local organisations. Belcher argues that the chain of responsibility from international to local levels creates various tensions, the concept of World Heritage being informed by the ten UNESCO criteria at the universal level, and by national and local aspirations at the area level. In order to rationalise this, statements of ‘outstanding universal values’ are produced for each site, identifying the special qualities and also their ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity’. But without a precise system of rules at the international level, local agencies have to rely on national and local systems such as town-planning legislation for protection. At present this legislation in the UK does not fully encompass the listing and management of World Heritage Sites. The result is that the simple, popular concept of World Heritage is being de facto challenged in its application and administration. Belcher’s essay fleshes out some of the problematic areas and identifies opportunities for creating clearer guidelines in the future.

14Having begun with a series of conceptual questions, the volume ends on the legalistic note of Marie Cornu’s essay ‘Safeguarding Heritage: From Legal Rights over Objects to Legal Rights for Individuals and Communities?’ There are numerous ways of regulating the connection between memory, history and heritage and, in this respect, diversity rules. Cornu discusses the second wave of laws on heritage protection, which have taken on board wider concerns about development and integration. Cornu outlines the process by which other fields of the law (environmental but also economic law) are now part of cultural heritage law, a field originally created as an autonomous and distinct body of legislation. Whilst positive outcomes are likely to result from the intersection of different legal fields, there is also a risk that the level of protection of cultural heritage sites may decrease.

15The thirteen essays collectively cover questions relating to access (essays 1-2, 4-5, 7-11); acquisition (3, 8-10); antiquities (5-6, 9-10); apartheid (1); archaeological practice (6-7); barbarism and plunder (3, 10-13); capitalism (1, 3); celebration (1-3, 6, 10-12); citizenship (3-5, 11); colonialism and post-colonialism (1, 3-6, 9-10); curatorship (3, 9-10); education (3-5, 8, 12); enlightenment (3, 5, 7, 9); ethnology (3-4, 9, 11, 13); fear (2,7,9-10); hegemony (3-4); historiography (1, 4-6); history (1, 3-4, 6-7, 9-13); human remains (7, 10-11, 13); integrity (7-8, 12, 13); intellectual property (11); jealousy (8-9); legislation (4, 8, 13, 10); management (3-5, 7, 8-13); memory (1-5, 13); myth (4, 6-7); nationalism (2, 4-6, 8, 10-11); nostalgia (1, 4, 12); ownership (1, 5-6, 8-11); policy (1-2, 4-5, 10-11); prejudice (3, 10); preservation (1, 4, 5, 7-8, 10-11, 13); pride (1, 3, 5-7); protection (1, 5, 7, 10-13); public interest (2-3, 7, 10-13); privatisation (3, 9-10); relics (3-4); religion (1-2, 4-6, 9); respect (4, 6-7, 9-10, 12-13); responsibility (1, 4-5, 7-8, 12-13); restitution and repatriation (5-11, 13); restoration (4, 6-7, 10); revolution and dissent (3-5, 9); rights (1, 5, 11-13); scholarship (6, 8); shame (1, 5, 10); slavery (1); stewardship (5, 7, 19); technology (1, 3-5, 6-7); tourism (1, 3-5, 7-8,10-12); trusteeship (4, 10); understanding (3-4, 6-7, 9-10, 12); UNESCO (4-5, 7, 10-13); and world heritage sites and conventions (8, 11-13). Of telling but unplanned significance is the fact that all thirteen essays mention war.

16It would have been impossible to cover all the relevant examples of cultural heritage, but the range of examples included across the volume is sufficiently geographically diverse to include references to Afghanistan (2), Australia (2, 7, 11-12), Bangladesh (6, 13), Belgium (12), Bolivia (1, 11-12), Brazil (2, 11), Canada (2, 10-11), Chile (11-12), China (6, 10-11), the Czech Republic (1), Cuba (1, 11), Denmark (1, 5, 10), Ecuador (11), Egypt (1, 3, 5-6, 8-10, 12-13), England (1, 2, 5, 10), Estonia (11), Ethiopia (10), Finland (1), France (2, 6, 10, 13), Greece (1, 5, 8, 10, 13), India (1, 3-6, 9--12), Ireland (2, 10, 12), Israel (1, 6), Italy (1, 8-9, 10, 13), Japan (12-13), Kenya (11), Korea (10-11, 13), Madagascar (1), Mali (4, 7, 11), Mexico (11-12), New Zealand (2, 7), Nigeria (10), Norway (1, 10), Pakistan (6), Peru (11), Poland (1, 12), Russia (1), Scotland (5, 10, 12), Senegal (12), South Africa (1, 4-6, 10-11), Spain (2, 12-13), Sri Lanka (4), Sweden (1, 6), Switzerland (1), Tunisia (13), Turkey (11), the United States (2, 4-5, 7,10-13), and Wales (12).

17The subject is far from exhausted however, and there remains much ground to be covered. I would like to have been able to showcase contributions from across even more disciplines, to have covered wider geographical ground, and to have been able to include essays on additional topics such as those of the digital humanities (from online collections to 3D printing of souvenirs and archaeological artefacts), the heritage of morally tainted gifts, pollution as the counterpart of sacralisation, and the distinction between the ethics of returning artefacts for preservation vis-à-vis those of returning human remains often for destruction. But if we have learned one thing from the ethics of cultural heritage it is not to let greed infect our aspirations.


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